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Against All Odds David Begnaud's unlikely rise to the top of TV News

By Charlie Bier for La Louisiane, The Magazine of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette

CBS News national correspondent David Begnaud’s broadcasts and social media posts when Hurricane Maria battered Puerto Rico last year kept millions of viewers riveted to the plight of the island’s 3.4 million residents.

The storm made landfall as a Category 4, just 2 mph shy of a Category 5. It knocked out all of the U.S. territory’s electricity, destroyed its communications infrastructure, flattened property and wiped out crops, causing as much as $95 billion in damage. Estimates of the number of people killed have varied drastically, from the Puerto Rican government’s total of 64 to a report by Harvard researchers that put the death toll at more than 4,600.

Disaster relief was widely criticized as particularly slow. Many hurricane survivors were stranded for days, weeks and months without power, drinking water and adequate supplies.

Begnaud arrived on the island three days before Maria hit on Sept. 20. He and a CBS crew spent the next 15 days reporting on the effects of the hurricane. His coverage spurred quicker, more efficient aid from Puerto Rican officials and federal agencies.

There were several followup trips. Six months after the storm, his focus was on the Puerto Rican government’s failure to restore electricity in many areas, and loss of temporary housing for evacuees relocated to places such as Florida.

Begnaud's relentless reporting earned him a prestigious George Polk Award for public service. His obvious compassion for the Puerto Rican people elevated his status to superhero in the eyes of many.

During an interview with La Louisiane, Gayle King, who co-hosts “CBS This Morning,” summed up why Begnaud’s reporting of the hurricane’s aftermath was so powerful:

“David got to the heart of that story and he got to the heart of the people.”

Carmen Yulín Cruz, mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, being interviewed by CBS News national correspondent David Begnaud after Hurricane Maria battered the U.S. territory in September 2017. Courtesy of CBS News.

Few viewers watching Begnaud’s coverage of the crisis in Puerto Rico knew how improbable it was that he would ever have a career in broadcasting, much less one on the world stage.

Begnaud has Tourette Syndrome, which is characterized by involuntary movements and vocalizations called tics. Tics are classified as complex or mild.

“Complex motor tics might include facial grimacing combined with a head twist and a shoulder shrug,” according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Some people with severe cases may uncontrollably wave their arms wildly. Others are unable to completely control their speech, so they randomly blurt out inappropriate words, such as curses or epithets.

Milder symptoms, like Begnaud’s, include repeated sniffing and grunting, and sudden movements. He sometimes sticks his tongue from his mouth at an odd angle, for example. “I sort of kick it out to the side like a lizard,” he explained.

Maria Placer is a former, longtime news director at KLFY-TV 10, the CBS affiliate in Lafayette where Begnaud got his professional start when he was only 18.

In an interview this summer, she reflected on the extraordinary situation she found herself in as one of the eager, ambitious young man’s first mentors. She still marvels at the incongruous career choice he made.

“Imagine a kid with Tourette’s wanting to be on national television.”

A neurologist diagnosed 36-year-old Begnaud with Tourette Syndrome when he was 7.

During elementary and middle school, manifestation of his symptoms were the equivalent of wearing a “kick me” sign on his back. He left home each morning braced for stares, snickers, taunts or shoves from other kids.

“It was a brutal thing to deal with,” he recalled in an interview with La Louisiane.

At one point, guidance counselors went to some of Begnaud’s classes to talk with students about Tourette’s, hoping the children would stop their abuse once they knew why he sometimes acted a little differently. It didn’t help.

Begnaud enrolled in four schools in eight years. He wasn’t able to outrun the abuse.

Fourth-grade classmate Ashley Guidry Allen of Lafayette recalls school being “very, very tough” for him. “I always remember seeing the hurt in his eyes,” she said.

Medications would ultimately help mitigate the symptoms of Tourette’s. But Begnaud said he relied heavily on denial to cope.

“In many ways, I had to almost lie to myself and just say that everything was rosy. That was the only way I could get through the day.”

Begnaud’s gift for communication and his natural charisma began to surface when he was a teenager at Teurlings Catholic High School in Lafayette.

He sacked groceries after school at Adrien’s Supermarket. The store manager told Begnaud’s father, Glenn Begnaud: “He’ll talk to anyone and people will come in asking for him. He’s the best ambassador for the store we’ve ever had.”

Begnaud credits Josette Surrat, Teurling’s then-speech and debate coach and an English teacher, with planting the seeds of his broadcast journalism career.

Surrat noticed what she calls “the voice” when he was a freshman. “His voice was definitely a broadcasting voice,” she recalled.

Surrat approached Begnaud about participating in speech and debate, but he was the football team’s videographer, which took much of his spare time. She made her pitch again at the beginning of his sophomore year. “He was a little reluctant,” she remembered, “but by December, I said, ‘OK, it’s now or never.’”

Begnaud relented. It was a smart move. He placed second at his first tournament against more than two dozen competitors. At least two spectators marveled when, tic-free and poised, he nailed his debut.

“My jaw dropped in amazement,” Glenn Begnaud said.

Mom Cydney Begnaud’s reaction was stronger. “Tears just started rolling down my face. He never missed a word. He never paused. To this day, I treasure that moment,” she said.

Surrat said Begnaud earned trophies at each of the dozens of local, state and national tournaments he competed in during high school.

Lindsay Fite Finley, a speech and debate rival who attended St. Thomas More High School in Lafayette, remembers the first time she saw Begnaud “strutting down the hall” at a hotel where competitors were staying during a tournament. “I thought: ‘Who is this guy with all this confidence?’”

They quickly became friends and Finley learned that Begnaud’s confidence was surface deep after he began opening up to her about how he was tormented at school because of having Tourette’s.

“People were pretty cruel to him and I think it affected him deeply,” she said.

CBS News’ David Begnaud’s coverage of the of the plight of Puerto Rican residents following Hurricane Maria last year earned the national correspondent a prestigious George Polk Award for public service.

Begnaud’s foray into broadcast journalism began when he sought and landed a gig as a teen reporter for KLFY.

Placer quickly noticed several traits: talent, a strong work ethic, drive, and boundless curiosity. He was also tenacious when pursuing information.

She would walk on a treadmill at Red Lerille’s Health and Racquet Club before starting her long, busy days at the television station. Begnaud, eager for one-on-one time to learn about the news business, showed up one morning to walk on a treadmill next to hers. He joined her morning after morning.

“He was like a little leech,” Placer fondly recalled, with a deep laugh.

“He had all of these questions: ‘What’s a good story? How hard should you press sources? In what instances shouldn’t you reveal the names of sources?’ These questions were flowing through his mind and he needed answers.”

Begnaud proved a quick study.

He became a full-time reporter at the station at age 18. He quickly moved into bigger roles, including evening anchor and host of “Passe Partout,” KLFY’s morning newscast.

After about four years at the station, and simultaneously earning a degree in general studies from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, he left in 2005 to work in other markets.

Begnaud logged stints at several regional news outlets, including in Shreveport, La., and Sacramento, Calif. Before joining CBS, he covered national breaking news as a Los Angeles-based reporter for Newsbreaker at ORA TV, a social media platform. He was also a regular contributor to “Entertainment Tonight.”

Begnaud became a full-time correspondent with CBS News in August 2015.

The previous month, the network had enlisted him as a freelancer to cover the Grand 16 Theater shooting in Lafayette. A gunman, described by police as a mentally ill drifter, opened fire in the movie theater. Two people were killed; nine were injured. The gunman died after turning his gun on himself.

“I had a responsibility to bring a certain humanity to the story because the victims were my people but I also had to maintain the veneer of a journalist. I couldn’t get super-emotional. In many ways, I felt like the network was testing me to see how I would do in my hometown,” he recalled.

He passed the test.

CBS News hired him full-time and stationed him in Miami. In early 2017, he relocated to the network’s Dallas bureau.

He has found a niche covering breaking news. Assignments have included volcanic eruptions in Hawaii and the 2016 nightclub shooting in Orlando, where 49 people were killed and 53 others were wounded. He has covered the separation of children from parents who tried to enter the country illegally at the U.S./Mexico border.

“I’m just here until the phone rings and then I hop on a plane and go. I really enjoy being at the scene of a big story,” he said.

Photo: David Begnaud with Gayle King, co-host of “CBS This Morning.” Courtesy of CBS.

Begnaud has never divulged – on a large scale – that he has Tourette Syndrome.

He told a boss at CBS News only after agreeing to talk with La Louisiane about his experience with the disorder. “I said, ‘FYI, this is going to come out.’”

Begnaud feared an admission of having Tourette Syndrome would have stunted his career. “I worried it would create a glass ceiling,” he said. Keeping quiet was easier because his symptoms have lessened, which can happen in adulthood. Begnaud quit taking medication to control his symptoms at about age 18.

Although he still displays symptoms at times, they disappear when a TV camera is rolling.

“When the red light goes on, I don’t tic,” he said, referring to the signal that indicates the camera is recording.

When people with Tourette’s participate in activities they enjoy or that engross them, tics can lessen, said Dr. Jack Damico, a professor in UL Lafayette's Department of Communicative Disorders.

“When you’re focusing on talking and making something happen, or you’re really engaged in something you’re interested in, you end up doing a lot of voluntary motor movements,” Damico explained. “The tics really come to the forefront when you’re at rest, or when you’re not focusing on other things.”

At UL Lafayette’s Fall 2017 Commencement, David Begnaud urged new graduates to “find the public service in your profession.” Photo by University of Louisiana at Lafayette/Amy Windsor

Begnaud said he decided to open up about his Tourette’s because he’s tired of keeping it a secret.

More importantly, he wants to use his enormous public platform to inspire and influence others with Tourette’s. It’s estimated that 200,000 Americans have the most severe form; as many as one in 100 exhibit milder symptoms.

There is a precedent for his revelation. In June 2018, Begnaud sent a tweet that conveyed that he is gay. Although he had not hidden his sexual orientation, he had not publicized it, either.

“Reporting the truth means sharing my own,” his tweet stated. In a follow-up Facebook post the next day, Begnaud said he hoped “that this story is the encouragement that other people need to tell their story.”

Likewise, he told La Louisiane that he hopes that talking about his own experience with Tourette’s will “help people see that their struggles – if it’s Tourette’s or something similar to it – won’t keep them from achieving their goals.”

Begnaud realizes that, in some ways, he’s lucky. His Tourette’s symptoms were not extreme.

Still, he doesn’t minimize the traumatic affect that bullying had on him when he was growing up.

“I came out just fine on the other end but I wouldn’t want any kid to go through what I went through,” he said.

Begnaud harbors no ill will toward classmates who made his life difficult. “When I see some of them today, they’re so proud and they’re so complimentary. It makes it easier for me to let go,” he explained.

Fourth-grade classmate Ashley Guidry Allen is more than proud of him. She gathers strength from remembering his childhood struggles.

Her third child, Jake, has cerebral palsy. She’s anxious about enrolling the 6-year-old, “who’s not going to walk the same as his classmates” in kindergarten.

“I saw David not long ago and I told him that I hope my son has the drive that he does, because he overcame something that was very tough.”

Photos courtesy of CBS News. Commencement photo by University of Louisiana at Lafayette/Amy Windsor.

Watch David Begnaud's address to graduates during the Spring 2018 Commencement ceremony.

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